Post Written by Markus
When I was in middle school, my family of origin broke apart. I don’t know the specific reasons although I can speculate – but really that doesn’t matter much to me now. It was a long process that from what I can tell began a few years earlier when I was still in elementary school. And really, our family wasn’t technically broken apart until I was a sophomore in high school. But it was definitely broken years before that and there were more than a few painful years while everything played out.
I’ll be honest – at the time, I didn’t think much of it. Plenty of my friends at school were in broken homes and that concept seemed pretty normal to me by age 16. But my heart (and my life) would tell you otherwise. Both were screaming in anguish and it would be about two decades before I started to regain a sense of security, belonging, and vulnerability.
For me, the aftermath of my family dissolving was in a word – devastating. There were plenty of other things at play that made life from age 11 to age 16 excruciating but the breaking apart of my family dumped jet fuel onto an already blazing dumpster fire. What little footing I had crumbled beneath my feet and I went into a tailspin in many ways, especially emotionally.
There’s plenty of detail and plenty of stories for another day. It’s hard to say which of those two decades was “harder” or “worse” – both of them included moments darker, more lonely, and more painful than I ever believed possible. It’s not until one year ago when I took the plunge and went on The ManKind Project’s NWTA weekend mens’ retreat that things tangibly began to change. That weekend was a catalyst in the best way for the most profound healing and growth I’ve ever experienced.
What Did It Mean?
If you had asked me at any point during those two decades to talk about how my family’s breakup affected me, I would have given you one of these responses:
It’s not a big deal.
Tons of people come from broken homes and they’re fine, so I’ll be fine too.
I’m actually glad because before the breakup everything was even worse and at least now there’s peace.
Although I was in massive denial, my heart knew that none of those were true. I distinctly remember the day I closed my heart up tight “so that I wouldn’t keep feeling so much hurt.” Spoiler alert – it didn’t work. Not just that, it actually guaranteed that I would experience the exact emotions I was trying to avoid – pain, sadness, and loneliness.
Now that I have a little perspective and am looking at much of this era of my life in hindsight, there’s an important question: how do I see this event in terms of what it means? The real question is the same no matter how it’s phrased, and it’s about Life itself:
Is Love even real or is Love just a fake lie?
Is the world a safe place or is a dangerous place?
Can I trust that I’m going to be OK even when painful things outside my control happen or do I need to protect my heart by armoring up and not letting anyone in?
For me, the question boils down to this: did this event happen TO me or did it happen FOR me?
Considering That I Might Be Wrong
The first time I even considered the idea that this event might have happened FOR me, I immediately dismissed it because it was obviously a stupid nonsense question. How could my family dissolving possibly be FOR me? Anyone that might even suggest that’s the case must be insane – that event triggered the lowest lows I’ve ever experienced. FOR me? Come on. Don’t waste my time.
What I didn’t see at the time was that I was already bringing my own pre-determined meaning to this question. I had already made up my mind and it was not open for discussion. It was an open-and-shut case as far as I was concerned: Markus’ family dissolves and as a result, Markus experiences pain and sadness. This happened TO him. Done and done.
If something happens FOR someone, that means they somehow benefited from it. I would never have described my experience as something remotely beneficial or positive. So therefore, it happened TO me. Negative effects = TO me, positive effects = FOR me. Easy.
And yet – today I believe deeply that this (and plenty of other painful things in my life) happened FOR me, not TO me. I’m honestly grateful for each moment of pain that I experienced along the way. Each of those moments has somehow led to my growth.
Although it took a long time, my family’s breakup ultimately led to me at age 35 being desperate enough to sign-up blind for that mens’ retreat which ended up being an experience that blew the doors of my heart and my life wide open. The positive effect of everything that’s happened since then has been blindingly obvious – which means that my family’s breakup actually did happen FOR me, not TO me. It was something that was brought into my life for my own growth.
Another big one was a severe ankle injury I sustained in 2003. It was a badly broken bone from a freak “sports” injury (paintball is a real sport, OK?) that led to multiple surgeries and hospitalizations, including a nasty staph infection in my ankle joint that wiped out all the cartilage.
I still have the scars on my arm from where I had a PICC line installed so I could self-administer my antibiotic IVs each day. I was two-years into my career as a student at SMU at the time and I quickly found myself in massive depression and realized I hadn’t been to class in a month. That turned into a downward spiral and I withdrew from SMU indefinitely – which turned into four years.
At my last orthopedic appointment earlier this year, my doctor told me (not jokingly) “Well, your ankle is still in terrible shape but it hasn’t gotten any worse. Honestly it’s amazing that you’re not in constant debilitating pain.”
But for me, today – it’s the same with this injury as it is with my family’s breakup. This injury happened FOR me, not TO me. The very painful journey that happened as a result of this injury taught me things I would not have learned otherwise and which I needed badly so that I could be of service to other people. Things like empathy – especially for people living with depression or disability. Also for people dealing with issues around body composition and fitness – I’d previously always thought it was a moral failing. I mean it was easy for me to stay in shape so why not everyone else? That perspective quickly changed when I realized I had gained about 75 pounds over two years and I learned firsthand how real that struggle actually is.
That injury also led to me moving out to Lubbock in 2006 where my brother was going to school. I remember the conversation as him saying something like “Hey man, you’re not going to school and there’s nothing keeping you in Dallas – we’re looking for a roommate, wanna move out here for a while?” I knew I would meet a lot of dust and a lot of wind in Lubbock. What I didn’t know is that I would meet a girl who would knock me off my feet, rock my world, and that I would ultimately ask to marry me.
It’s beyond obvious today that this injury happened FOR me, not TO me. This was a cosmic two-by-four that smacked me clear across the forehead and that forced painful experiences into my life for my own growth, so that I would be of better use (alright, any use) to the world around me. And so that I would meet Lilly, after which my life would never be the same – in the best ways.
A New Default Mode
These days, I notice myself genuinely saying a phrase out-loud to myself plenty of times throughout the day, and it still catches me off guard. It’s after something has happened that seems annoying, frustrating, inconvenient, unpleasant, painful, or unfair. That phrase is “Thank you.”
When I’m running late and I seem to catch every single red light? “Thank you.”
When my daughter accidentally knocks a full glass of water onto a clean wooden floor as I’m closing the door after saying goodnight? “Thank you.”
When I have one item at the grocery store, the express lines are closed, and it’s a 10-minute wait to the cashier? “Thank you.”
Because what I’ve come to realize is this: I am the one who decides what the things in my life mean, whether they’re positive or negative. Are they happening FOR me or TO me?
And what I’ve decided is – no matter what it is, it’s happening FOR me.
How do I know? Because I’m playing the long game and because I’m no longer arrogant enough to assume that I know how everything (or anything for that matter) is going to play out over time. Everything that looks like it’s happening TO me in the moment, might be the exact opposite and I just might not know it for twenty years – because that’s exactly what happened in my life.
These days, if I can’t prove immediately which of the two it is (i.e., always), I now assume that it’s happening FOR me. There are two options that it could be – TO me or FOR me. I’ve been down the “everything that’s unpleasant is happening TO me” road. I spent decades being cynical, jaded, paranoid, pessimistic and with my heart locked-down tight. I’ve lived as if the world was a bad, scary place and that everyone and everything was out to get me. I even had so much “proof.”
But no thanks, that’s not for me anymore. Whatever each day has in store, I’m there for it. Amor Fati – a love of fate. Not merely to bear what is necessary, but love it. The obstacle really is the way.
In the words of Marcus Aurelius – “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” What looks like it might be a total derailing of my life or at least an annoying, inconvenient mess – I now view as a scenic detour and I keep my eyes peeled for rainbows along the way. Believing (and knowing) that life is happening FOR me – to me, that’s the essence of what it means to live with an open heart.